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Hamilton County Schools superintendent candidate Dr. Bryan Johnson speaks to the public during a meet-and-greet in the Board of Education meeting room on Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dr. Johnson is the fourth of five candidates to interview for the position.

Members of the Hamilton County Board of Education hope a contract with the next superintendent, Bryan Johnson, will be finalized in the coming weeks.

School board chairman Steve Highlander on Friday described negotiations as "a work in progress" and said he couldn't predict when the board would schedule a vote.

"I would love to have [Johnson] on board already, and I'm sure Mr. Johnson would love that too," Highlander said. "We just have to iron out the differences and work it out."

But other board members told the Times Free Press they expect the contract to be signed by mid-July at the latest.

The school board voted June 15 to name Johnson the district's next leader, after more than 15 months without a permanent superintendent.

Since then Johnson has made several trips to Hamilton County, and he met individually with some board members Friday. Johnson has told the Times Free Press he's enthusiastic to get the contract finalized and start working.

Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly, who sought the permanent post, has remained in place since the June 15 vote, as state law requires school districts to have someone in the position.

But Kelly has been on vacation for the last two weeks and said he isn't sure if he'll continue filling in as interim superintendent.

"I have not finalized a decision yet," he said by text message Saturday morning.

Kelly said he also hasn't decided whether he'll retire, and he is exploring options.

Scott Bennett, the school board's attorney who is handling the contract negotiations, was out of town and did not respond to a request for comment.

Details of the contract and whether a buyout is included could be important to the board and Johnson. Hamilton County's last three superintendents left after falling out of favor with the school board.

In July 2015, the school board gave former Superintendent Rick Smith his highest evaluation score, and voted to extend his contract to July 31, 2019. Smith got a yearly salary of about $199,000 plus benefits, up from $163,500 when he was named superintendent in 2011.

But in the months following the December 2015 rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman, Smith was harshly criticized for his handling of the situation and lack of communication with the board and community.

On Smith's request, the board voted 6-3 in January 2016 to begin negotiating a separation agreement with him. But two months later the school board voted 5-4 against the $269,000 proposed buyout, with many saying they didn't want to pay Smith taxpayer dollars to leave.

Smith decided to step down in March 2016, one day after the Times Free Press wrote about a report sent in January to the school district by the Tennessee Department of Education. The report criticized the district's leadership for failing to turn around five low-performing schools. Smith never gave it to the school board.

Upon retiring, Smith began receiving a pension of about $95,000 a year. He was paid more than $234,000 in accrued vacation pay and about $6,800 in sick pay, according to the school system. Smith served in the Hamilton County Schools system for more than three decades, working as a principal and coach and in several administrative roles.

Months before Smith took the top job the school board voted to buy out the contract of the previous superintendent, Jim Scales, for more than $285,000.

Before Scales, Jesse Register was superintendent of the newly merged city/county school system from 1997 to 2006. After stepping down from the helm, Register was contracted by the district as a consultant for a year.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.

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